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Fear and Trembling

Soren Kierkegaard

Preliminary Expectoration - Part 1

Eulogy on Abraham

Preliminary Expectoration - Part 1, page 2

page 1 of 3
Summary

The remainder of Fear and Trembling is given over to a series of three "problemata" which are prefaced by a "preliminary expectoration." Johannes begins by reflecting on the saying "only one who works earns bread," that it is not true of the unjust, external world, but that it is true in the world of the spirit. We all know that Abraham is great and think this sufficient, yet very few of us are willing to do the necessary work to understand his story. Abraham did more than a merchant would do in giving up his money: Abraham felt anxiety as a result of the ethical obligation he had to his son.

Johannes imagines the case of a man, who, hearing a preacher praise Abraham's sacrifice, returns home planning to kill his son: the man is only following the words of the preacher. The preacher failed to convey what made Abraham great and so condoned this man's behavior. The ethical expression of Abraham's behavior is that he tried to murder Isaac. The religious expression of his behavior is that he tried to sacrifice Isaac. Any murderer can emulate Abraham on an ethical level, but to emulate him on a religious level requires faith.

If he were to speak about Abraham, Johannes suggests that first, he would say that Abraham was God-fearing: otherwise God would not have tested him. Second, he would describe in detail the love Abraham had for Isaac, a love far greater than the usual love between father and son. Third, he would note that Abraham was free at every moment to change his mind and not sacrifice Isaac. Fourth, Johannes would remark that he himself is not a man of faith, and that though he can speak about Abraham, he could not emulate him.

Johannes complains that no one praises faith. We assume that having faith is easy compared to doing philosophy, but, Johannes remarks, he can understand Hegel but not Abraham. Philosophy is not faith, nor can it give us faith, nor can it convince us that faith is worthless. Johannes remarks once more that he is not a man of faith and, were he in Abraham's shoes, he would not have behaved as Abraham had. He would be capable of following God's command, but he would also think "all is lost" and be sad that he has to sacrifice his son. He would resign himself to this fate, but this resignation would simply be a substitute for faith. Further, if he loved his son as Abraham had, he would not have gone in the first place. Lastly, if he had done as God had said and received Isaac back at the last minute, he would never be able to overcome the pain of the whole experience and would have trouble being happy with Isaac.

Johannes characterizes Abraham as having faith "by virtue of the absurd": there is no room for human calculation or anything logical in Abraham's faith or, indeed, in God's behavior either. Abraham's faith takes us one step beyond the infinite resignation required to give up Isaac. By virtue of the finite double movement of faith, Abraham gives up Isaac entirely only to regain him once more.

Abraham's story can only teach us amazement. People who think they understand the story and can be moved to faith by it have simply misunderstood the story and failed to make the first movement of resignation, let alone the double movement of faith. Abraham is a paradox from which we cannot derive worldly wisdom.

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